Calling or Conviction: “If it’s not about avoiding sin, does LGBT celibacy still matter?”

Today, we are responding directly to a reader question that came after last week’s Saturday Symposium question:

“The tenor of your blog puzzles me more and more with every post. Not saying that’s bad. It’s just that everyone else who talks about this stuff does so while making an affirming or non-affirming argument. My question is do you think a celibate gay person’s commitment to celibacy matters if it doesn’t come along with a statement that gay sex is wrong? Is it good enough that a person feels called to celibacy, or does that call have to come from a place of conviction of sin in order for it to matter or have meaning?”

Before we get started on this one, we refer you to another post where we wrote about why  we choose not to engage in the “Is same-sex sexual activity sinful?” debate here on the blog. We recommend reading that one first before continuing with this post. The decision to frame our writing project outside this particular debate does not mean that we have no opinions on sexual ethics for LGBT Christians. It also doesn’t mean that we think the question is unimportant. It only means that here in this space, we are trying to have a different conversation. That said, we can proceed to addressing this reader’s question.

To begin with, if a person feels called to celibacy, it makes sense to discuss this calling in terms of vocation. Vocations enable people to manifest the Kingdom of God. They bring people into relationship with God, other humans, and the world as a whole. They call people to live more intentionally. Because of this, our initial response to reading this question was, “Why wouldn’t a person’s vocation matter?” We believe that regardless of a person’s reason for pursuing a particular vocation in the beginning, for the duration, or in the end, the choice to pursue it is significant. It means that a person has decided to follow God in a way of life that will help him or her to grow in holiness. Why would that not be important and meaningful, even if you don’t agree with that person’s reason for making the commitment?

It seems absurd to us that in the eyes of some, LGBT celibacy isn’t “valid” or “real” if a person offers, “I feel called” instead of, “I’m avoiding sin” as his/her reason for pursing celibacy. Rarely do we hear anyone apply the same standard to the vocation of marriage, even though within some Christian traditions one could make a biblical argument that avoidance of sin is the primary reason a person should choose to marry. In 1 Corinthians 7:9, St. Paul writes, “But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” It wouldn’t be terribly difficult to argue that based on this scripture, a person should marry if marrying is the only way he or she can avoid sexual sin, and other possible reasons for marrying are less meaningful. But nobody makes this argument. Or at least nobody we’ve ever met or read. We don’t hear this argument because most Christians across all denominations would find it ridiculous. Traditions like Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and some Protestant denominations have thorough, developed theologies of marriage that span far more than “better to marry than to burn.” Ask yourself, “Does marriage still matter if the married person entered this vocation because of a calling rather than a desire to avoid sin?” Ask a friend. In preparation for this post, we’ve asked several, and every one of them thought the question absurd.

Some who hold to a conservative sexual ethic might say at this point, “A personal calling is fine. Nothing wrong with that. But gay sex is still a sin, and if the celibate person doesn’t believe this, he/she holds a heterodox belief. Without orthodox belief, LGBT celibacy means nothing.” The problem with this statement is that Christianity involves both belief and practice. Believing in a certain sexual ethic is not a prerequisite for practicing celibacy. A person who holds to a belief that your tradition considers theologically unorthodox may very well be engaging in a practice that is orthodox according to your tradition’s teachings. One does not negate the other. You can hold that a person is wrong about a theological issue and still appreciate that person’s commitment to a vocation. Let’s assume for a moment that you belong to a Christian tradition that considers use of contraception a sin. Would you say that a married couple’s marriage is meaningless if that couple isn’t using contraception, but disagrees with the teaching that doing so would be sinful?

This isn’t exactly the same as our reader’s question, but we believe it is related: an argument we hear from some Christians with a liberal sexual ethic goes something like, “No LGBT person can choose celibacy freely unless his/her Christian tradition also affirms gay marriage. If the celibate LGBT person belongs to a non-affirming tradition, a sense of calling doesn’t matter. If all vocation options aren’t open, the choice to pursue celibacy — the only option — is meaningless.” We do believe that people should be able to discover their vocations rather than experience vocation as a mandate. However, we are also aware that this belief is influenced by our modern context. Anyone who has basic familiarity with Church history should know that for the first several centuries of Christianity, most people had very little personal choice in the matter of whether they would marry or live as celibates. To say that celibacy doesn’t matter if it’s the only choice available is to declare that thousands of people’s life experiences were meaningless. To those making this argument we ask: are you willing to suggest that there was no meaning to the celibate life of Hildegard of Bingen because her parents — not she herself — decided that she would become a nun? Are you willing to assert that because Hildegard didn’t choose her own way of life, she never experienced a sense of call to monasticism?

Along with this, we think it’s important to point out that people’s understandings of theology and personal calling usually develop over time. As children of the Church, we will grow and change. No one can answer every question about his or her vocation immediately after deciding to follow Christ. We don’t expect people to know everything there is to know about the Bible, Church history, or practices of Christian worship. Relative to marriage, we think most people would find it unreasonable to assert that newlyweds know everything there is to know about marriage. Some of our closest friends have told us that they were married for over five years before starting to have any degree of appreciation for what it meant for them to be married. A novice entering a monastery is hoping to discern what monastic life has to offer him or her. Beginnings of one’s vocation can be an especially spiritually fruitful time as one notes the sparks of “first love” for a particular way of life. In our own lives, we have embraced the process of maturing towards celibacy. We have begun to see our vocation’s first fruits as we have journeyed together, and we look forward to how God will continue to guide and direct our steps. All stories of vocation have meaning precisely because they dramatize how God has walked with particular people throughout their lives.

We sincerely appreciate our reader’s question. This question dovetails into existing conversations about LGBT Christian sexual ethics. Privileging the discussion of whether same-sex sexual activity is sinful can prevent Christians from seeing the practical questions around discerning vocations, and this happens quite often in discussions about LGBT issues. We consider it distressing that due to where the conversation is currently, “Does vocation have any meaning?” is actually reasonable question. When we begin talking more broadly about vocation, we can also talk about how LGBT Christians image the Kingdom of God in our midst. We believe it especially important for people who hold a traditional sexual ethic to focus on the positives of vocation rather than the negatives of trying to stay on the “right” side of the line that separates the “good” gays from the “bad” gays.

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